Star Ocean: The Last Hope International
Platform: PlayStation 3
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: tri-Ace
Genre: Action RPG
Format: BD-ROM
Released: US 02/08/10
Japan 02/04/10

Graphics: 90%
Sound: 75%
Gameplay: 92%
Control: 85%
Story: 68%
Overall: 81%
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Furry elf ears, it's like a 4channer's dream come true.
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Savage Sparrows - not Avage Arrows.
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You sure confused that bug!
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John McCarroll
Star Ocean: The Last Hope International
John McCarroll

Most game companies are very fond of re-releases, and Square Enix is no different. From their Japanese-only Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix+ to The Last Remnant for PC to Final Fantasy I and II for just about everything but digital watches, Square Enix has been the vanguard for how to re-release games. With most of these re-releases, however, a different branding usually means improvements to the game. Final Mix+ saw Re:Chain of Memories, The Last Remnant for PC hosted a wide range of improvements, and Final Fantasy I and II have seen big changes since the NES days. Star Ocean: The Last Hope International feels like nothing more than a cash-in, since there aren't a wide range of improvements in the game. Certainly, Square Enix added a bit of language support to the game due to the space on the blu-ray disc. Also, the graphics have been tweaked very slightly, but there's not a great deal different from its Xbox 360 twin brother. Still, Star Ocean: The Last Hope is a fun, but flawed, RPG that is a solid pick-up for PS3 gamers.

tri-Ace is a developer that seems to be very love-or-hate with fans of RPGs. There are those, like myself, who find that the excellent battle systems and the 'so flawed you can break the game' customization systems, outweigh the flaws - most notably story - that their games have. Others find that the flat characters, laughable dialogue, and sometimes-buggy systems outweigh the fun-factor. Star Ocean: The Last Hope doesn't break these stereotypes, but it's still the type of game that will garner enjoyment from most JRPG fans, although I can't say that the game holds anywhere close to the same kind of appeal as Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. The fourth Star Ocean does hold one of the best battle systems in modern RPGs despite its flaws.

The basics of the battle system are on par with those in Namco Bandai's "Tales of" series, as well as earlier Star Ocean titles. Players maneuver a 3D plane with their characters and can use a variety of standard attacks and special attacks to beat their opponents into mud. There are several features that make the battle system much deeper than its predecessors: the BEAT system, the Rush system, Blindsides, and the Bonus Board. The smallest change from its counterparts is the BEAT system, which sets the different characters to one of three BEATs, which gives them slightly different statistical progression and abilities in battle. Most characters slot neatly into one of these setups, so it's not as if the choice is a tough one to make.

The Rush system is a simple bar that accumulates points as a particular character takes or deals damage and loses points when that character is idle for too long. It can be used to make one character much more likely to gain critical strikes and unable to be interrupted during attack animations for a short period of time. It can also be used in conjunction with a special move to chain specials with a nearby ally. These moves are incredibly powerful, but drain the entirety of the Rush bar. It's not a particularly complicated portion of the battle system, but it is one of the things that makes the battle slightly more than just a hack-and-slash. The partner to the Rush system is the Blindside system, which allows players to flank enemies actively with any character. Blindsides significantly increase the character's critical strike chance when used offensively and allow players to dodge attacks quickly when used defensively. Some enemies need to be in mid-attack to be blindsided, but characters sufficiently leveled with one of the BEAT trees can use the blindside ability twice in a row. It's a nice addition, but were it not for the Bonus Board, as well as some enemies being invulnerable to regular attacks, it's a feature that I personally wouldn't have used a great deal.

The Bonus Board is probably the most interesting addition to the Star Ocean battle system. When players achieve enemy kills in certain ways, like with a critical strike or killing multiple enemies, among other requirements, they get colored chits on their bonus board that provide them with different improvements to their loot at the end of battle. Players who kill with critical strikes will get more experience and players who enter battle with many enemies about will get additional skill points. However, if players are critically struck during battle, they can say goodbye to a large chunk of their Bonus Board. When multiple chits of the same color are together, they only lose half their total, however, providing the only protection against this. It's a nifty way to get players to use the different aspects of the battle system rather than just mash buttons. Unfortunately, the Bonus Board does not extend beyond a single play session, which is a bit of a gripe. If I've got a board full of additional experience and have to turn off the PS3, I have to regain those chits. A small hassle, but a hassle nonetheless.

Outside of battle, players follow the standard JRPG formula of going from town-to-town (and planet-to-planet) to fight a great evil (seen here in the mysterious Phantoms, the alien Cardianons, and the evil items known as the Grigori). The game has all the aspects of a space epic–human exploration into space, alternate dimensions, weird mutating aliens–it's all stuff that you'd see in any given episode of Star Trek. Fans of previous Star Ocean titles will find plenty of places that they've seen in other titles, as well. Unfortunately, while the overall plot is fairly up-to-snuff, the individual characters and dialogue are absolutely abysmal. Most of the dialogue is similar to that of the prototypical JRPG–fairly generic drivel about the power of friendship overcoming all from just about every member of the cast. The two characters that I found most interesting, Myuria and Arumat, were the only two that had motives other than friendship and world-saving in mind. That's not to say all the characters are bad–though Sarah and Lymle are characters that I would be happy never to remember again–but they are really very generic: Edge Maverick, generic spunky RPG hero that's just a little bit emo; Reimi Saionji, Edge's female counterpart who might not be as tough as she appears; Bacchus D-79, robot man. They're not bad characters, they're fairly generic ones that, unfortunately, were not made any better by the game's audio.

If there's one aspect that made me dislike Star Ocean 4's story the most, it is hands-down the English dub. I'm not one of those players who stick their noses up at English dub–companies. Companies like Atlus continue to amaze me with the voiceovers in their Shin Megami Tensei series, and Square Enix has a lot more cash in the coffers than they do, but the VA is simply bad. Some characters are simply generic, and the core of characters that players control fit this bill. However, once players accumulate party members like Lymle and Sarah, all bets are off. Lymle, a young girl, has simply the most monotone voice in recent voice-over memory. Some of this is built into her character, but it grates more and more as the game wears on. Sarah, a party member acquired on the second disc, has the voice actress going what sounds like a whole octave higher than she should and the results are not pretty. Any of the aspects of the bad dialogue, poor VA, or generic characters could be taken on their own, but combined fully, they make the story completely unpalatable.

Thankfully, this is one feature that has been improved with the PS3 release of the title. Square Enix has included the entirety of the Japanese voice track in the game and can be swapped to at any time. Fans of Japanese dubs will find themselves right at home with the subtitles, although anime enthusiasts will recognize that they are "dubtitles" to match the US voice track rather than a direct translation of the text. The game is also playable in a myriad of other languages for text, so budding Italian or German speakers can get their reading skills on.

Luckily, the English dub is just about the only actual bad aspect of Star Ocean: The Last Hope. The game is gorgeous and environments are wide and expansive. Characters all animate well, as there's none of the goofy, disjointed movement from The Last Remnant, and the special attacks during battle are all very impressive. The International edition of the game also features selectable portraits for the characters. The only downside to the graphics is the way the characters themselves are styled. The highly-detailed characters have anime-styled faces that look eerily like china dolls, and while they are expressive, it's creepy, almost like the so-called "Uncanny Valley" for animation. It's still excellent visually, but there's just that tiny chink in the armor that drags it down a tad.

Saving the best for last, though, are the skill and item creation systems. The skill system is similar to the equivalent systems in the other games in the series–characters gain skill points when they level up that can be distributed among different abilities learned from books that can be purchased or found in dungeons. These skills not only give players a way to make their own characters unique, they also allow control over the difficulty of the game beyond the basic selection at the beginning. Players who want to take the easy route will be able to buff up their characters to near-immortal levels–I didn't die my first playthrough–or they can leave them as relative weaklings. It's a worthwhile system, and like many things in tri-Ace titles, inherently broken. Not that it's broken in a bad way, mind you.

The last tri-Ace staple in the game is item creation. Players obtain materials throughout the game that can be turned into both useful equipment and useless junk back on the mothership. Recipes are gained either out in the world or by spending skill points to give characters time to think up new equipment to make. It's a cool use of skill points, as some of the equipment that can be crafted is more powerful than most things available by a certain point in the game. The only downside is that it can be difficult to obtain certain ingredients out in the world, but it's not a killer by any stretch of the imagination.

All-in-all, Star Ocean: The Last Hope is a tri-Ace title. It's amazingly fun and amazingly flawed in many ways. Just about every system in the game is breakable, but that's a tri-Ace hallmark. Those who played the game on the Xbox 360 will find nothing new to play here, but PS3 die-hards will find a game that's fun to play, but is far from perfect . As long as players are willing to find that mute button on their remote - or can palate the Japanese dub - and can stand up to an overly-sappy story, there's no reason not to pick up Star Ocean: The Last Hope.


© 2010 Square Enix. All rights reserved.

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